[NOTE: This review contains plot spoilers and song titles. Please do not continue if you wish to have the freshest possible viewing if you have not seen this yet!]
Not since Urinetown:The Musical has Broadway seen a better constructed, fully realized production of the meta-musical than The Book of Mormon. Forgive me, please, fans of the similarly self-aware The Producers, Spamalot and the rest, but Mormon and Urinetown have what the rest of these shows don't: a heart to match the witty barbs, high camp, bawdy, low humor and pseudo-topicality. Both shows revel in the send up of the very art form you are watching, but never with a sense of malice, and rather with a sense of awe and reverence. It helps, too, that both are thoroughly original, using the familiarity of certain elements to guide us into territory hitherto untouched by the Broadway musical. And for that, if nothing else, we must give great thanks and a bow to newcomers Matt Stone and Trey Parker and veterans Robert Lopez and Casey Nicholaw.
That is not to say that, as some have suggested, The Book of Mormon is a flawless classic. Close, but not really. Chief among its problems is that it starts out of the gate with the force of bullet out of a gun held at close range to its target. It has, easily, the fastest, most hilarious first twenty minutes or so of any musical I have ever seen. The opening number, a religious mini-pageant explaining a little about the Mormons for the unfamiliar (a wise choice), segues into a riotous (literally inducing stomach cramps in me) number called "Hello," which involves those endlessly cheery, toothsome all-American boys in white and black ringing doorbell after doorbell. In the space of about 5 minutes we are all on the same page - a brief history, followed by a reminder of what we all know about Mormons.
Then we are transported to the "inner-workings" of the faith, at the Missionary Training Center, a colorful set featuring a cartoonish panorama of Salt Lake City, with the Mormon Temple dead center, a full array of fast food and shopping brand signs and impossibly lush greenery filling in the holes - the Utah Board of Tourism should use this to draw visitors. Downstage is an almost too clean, too wholesome recruiting area, where the latest class of soon-to-be-missionaries awaits their pairing and assignment. The juxtaposition is both funny and jarring as you laugh at and realize the subtle (maybe not too subtle) reference to mind-control and programming that some have said happens to these young folks pre-mission. It is here where we meet the go-getter Elder Price (Andrew Rannells) and the slovenly geek Elder Cunningham (Josh Gad, channeling his previous work in Spelling Bee, which mostly works), and find out that beneath the bright smiles and friendly patter resides your typical 19 year old with ambition and naivete about the real world.
Then we are whisked off to the airport for the familial send-off, which includes the infamous Lion King rip-off/tribute (depending on how pro-Disney you are), and then, a drop flies out and bam! we are in Uganda, land of the AIDS epidemic, warlords, genital mutilation and scrotal maggots. We are introduced to the "water" of this "fish out of water" tale in pretty rapid succession - the doctor with the maggot problem (a one joke role played with variety by Michael James Scott), a dad trying to protect his daughter from AIDS and mutilation (the endlessly sweet and wise Michael Potts), and that daughter Nabulungi (Nikki M. James), the sweet, innocent and naive (to match the Mormons, naturally), as well as the Mormon leader of this mission, Elder McKinley (the utterly charming and conspiratorial Rory O'Malley), who has a whole set of different issues going on. In the midst of all that, lest we get too bogged down by exposition, there are the truly hilarious numbers "Hasa Diga Eebowai", the now infamous song that you can't translate in print without being censored, and the more subversive Mormon ode to hiding your, um, freak flag shall we say? called "Turn It Off."
Now, you are probably thinking, where's the problem? It sounds very funny, full of interesting characters and fast-paced. True on all counts. But that is exactly the problem, too. I suspect that some of it has to do with the fact that Parker and Stone are by this point programmed to cram everything they can into 20 minute segments for their long-running show South Park. (Full disclosure: I have seen exactly one episode of that show.) But there is a giant difference between 20 minutes of TV time and 20 minutes of stage time: TV shows have commercials to break the momentum and allow the audience to catch its collective breath. But with The Book of Mormon, it is non-stop. And, quite frankly, exhausting. It also makes the necessary and welcome more serious moments very abrupt and jarring, and therefore, just a tad shoe-horned in. The result ranges from a moderately uncomfortable change of mood that comes out of nowhere to the single most violent, right in front of your eyes and deadly serious moments I might have ever seen on a Broadway stage: a point blank, in the face shooting of a man defending his family. That it is done so realistically is the shocker, especially in this show, and especially when nothing even close to this serious happens before this moment to prepare you for it. Perhaps I am going on too much about one, as it turns out, relatively minor plot point. But this and every other serious moment in the show would work that much better if they weren't stuck in like commercials, but rather allowed the plot to ebb and flow. And I am surprised that Robert Lopez, who re-wrote the book on how to do this very thing with his mega-hit Avenue Q, and Casey Nicholaw, who proved in The Drowsy Chaperone how to balance high comedy with touching moments. Perhaps he felt more at home with his more tedious and similar Spamalot type direction. They should have known better and helped the new guys out. Yes, I laughed out loud throughout, but hated the interruption. That lack is what keeps, for this viewer, a very good musical from being a great musical.
Chief among the shows many mostly spectacular charms is the almost chapter-and-verse layout of the show's plot and musical numbers. It is a veritable primer on how to structure a musical (intensity issues aside), and could, if it weren't so profanity-laced, be a go-to text for schools teaching students to write and analyze musicals. Everything is here: the "I Need" song, the scene setting numbers, the moral-checking ballad, the 11 o'clock number, the main characters facing new circumstances, applying what they know to ill effect, learning new things to better effect, plot twists, crisis points and a tidy ending that will leave the audience thrilled with happiness.
And there are the production numbers, skillfully staged, though with somewhat repetitive choreography by Mr. Nicholaw (boy band moves for the missionaries, Lion King moves for the Ugandans). The religious pageants - there are two or three - provide a great running gag as they both create religious tableau and send them up in very funny ways, and they also provide the ground work for the jewel of act two, the "Small House of Uncle Thomas" send up of the founding of Mormonism as told by the Africans, "Joseph Smith American Moses", and the charming "Sal Tlay Ka Siti," my next favorite 20 minute segment of the whole show beyond the opening. And there is the tears-down-your-face-because-you-can't-breathe-from-laughing number, that just smacks of Mr. Parker's doing. I may be wrong, but it is unlike anything else in the show staging-wise, and matches the frenzy of the South Park episode I have seen. That number is the extravaganza called "Spooky Mormon Hell Dream." Picture, if you will, Hell full of sexy Mormon boys shirts open and glittered up, a chorus of devils and skeletons, the Devil himself, and his minions - Hitler, Genghis Khan, Jeffrey Dahmer and a special guest I just can't give away here. Too bad the Tonys aren't shown on cable networks; this would be the number I'd do on TV.
Technically, the show is aces, too, with spectacular and humbly old-fashioned sets designed by Scott Pask - his proscenium that looks like a Mormon Temple and celestial panoramas that extend out over the boxes are a delight from the moment you enter the theatre. The colorful lighting by Brian McDevitt and the setting appropriate costumes by Ann Roth both do exactly what is needed but little more. I have to commend sound designer Brian Ronan for masterful work at keeping the balance and levels so perfect that you don't miss a syllable even as the the staging becomes a manic mess of confusion and noisy characters.
And as wonderful as it all looks, and as terrific as the songs and book are, this show would be nothing without this cast who, to a person, are perfection in matching role to actor, and who, as a company, are entirely on the same page in getting the real message of the play out there. All I can think of is the original cast of The Producers, who proved that working with a property from the very beginning becomes a part of your being not just a part of the performance. History proved that that show was much less than the sum of its parts as re-casting occurred, and I fear that history could repeat itself here. It is hard to imagine anyone in the company playing even the smallest part being re-cast down the line. The ensemble is one of the best I've seen in more than 25 years of seeing shows on Broadway. They are so in sync with one another, so naturally together, so bonded. They have, collectively, that "it" factor that you know when you see it, but can't ever seem to define it. Every one of them is to be commended, and are an example of why the Tony Awards should recognize ensembles. It is even harder to imagine the three main roles played as well and as nuanced as played by these originals.
If Nikki M. James doesn't at least get a featured actress Tony nomination, if not win, from her performance, there is really no justice left in this world. She is sweet, compelling and provides the moral and emotional center of the entire show. Without her masterful and sublimely subtle performance in a sea of anarchy and hyperbole, the show would be a runaway mess, devoid of any feelings beyond malice and frivolity. Small in stature, this dynamo commands the stage, which is saying A LOT, and the gal can sing!
Our central heroes, an odd couple/buddy picture/romantic couple minus even the inkling of sexuality, are magnificently played by Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad. One perfection personified, the other jerk personified, could, in lesser hands, be no more than annoying before the first act curtain. But from the get go, they play their roles with such earnest honesty, flaws and all, that you can't help but like them immediately. And when the inevitable plot conflict kicks in that drives them apart, it is just as much fun to watch them work themselves back together as it is obvious that it will happen. Thanks to the golden-voiced, superbly timed performance of Mr. Rannells, we can see very clearly that while we are laughing at Mormons and their silly ways, we never seem to lose our respect for their convictions. And thanks to the less than golden-voiced and superbly timed performance of uber-geek/slob Elder Cunningham played by Mr. Gad, we again are laughing at the obvious, but, I hope, come away with a little more respect for the annoying people in our lives. Still, it would have been an even fuller performance had Mr. Gad found a few more notes in the perilously close to Spelling Bee performance One imagines that Rannells and Gad will become the next Ripley and Skinner of the Broadway scene. Let's just hope they are wise enough to skip any future revivals of The Producers.
On a final note, the much ballyhooed profanity and blasphemy in this show is, in my book, a no show. Rarely does the "f" word come out where it isn't just a part of the language of the culture. After the shock value wears off, you don't even giggle when one of the Ugandans says it. They are trying to speak English with the Missionaries, and to them it is either an adjective that makes something bad that much worse, or it literally means intercourse. And as for the blasphemy, sure, in literal terms, the one song which I can't translate here, and subsequent questioning of God's power over such serious circumstances is blasphemous. But in a show that ultimately sends you home with the message that higher power or not, very real miracles can happen when communities open their minds and communicate within a common belief system, you can't help say "Thank you, God (or whatever you believe in)."
Given the almost universal praise and unbelievably superb press this show has gotten, experience has taught me that The Book of Mormon wouldn't be as dirty or blasphemous as they say, and experience has also taught me that it probably wouldn't be as funny or as perfect as they say, either. It isn't. But it is pretty f-ing close!
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
THE NORMAL HEART CONTEST QUESTION OF THE DAY!
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TRIVIA QUESTION #2:
Jim Parsons will be making his Broadway debut in The Normal Heart. For which TV series did he win his first Emmy Award:
A. Two and Half Men
B. The Office
C. Modern Family
D. Big Bang Theory
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(Photo of The Normal Heart star Jim Parsons)
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